KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maintaining an elite roster can be a challenge in the NFL — given the salary cap, injuries and the inevitable march of time.
Players on great teams expect to get paid for their contributions to that greatness, and rightfully so.
To that end, the Kansas City Chiefs, the back-to-back reigning Super Bowl champs, have some difficult free-agent decisions looming and some position groups — hello, wide receiver — in need of an overhaul.
Kansas City has 41 players under contract for 2024, according to Over the Cap, so let’s break it down position by position with an eye toward how the Chiefs’ offseason might unfold:
Players under contract (2): Ian Book, Patrick Mahomes
Free agents (1): Blaine Gabbert
I’d expect the Chiefs to make a run at re-signing Gabbert.
Andy Reid loves to have a veteran presence in the QB room with Mahomes, who continues to build his legacy as one of the greatest players in NFL history.
Book signed a reserve/futures contract.
Players under contract (3): Hassan Hall, Isaiah Pacheco, La’Mical Perine
Free agents (2): Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jerick McKinnon
Pacheco remains the leader of the pack in the backfield, but the Chiefs face an interesting decision with Edwards-Helaire. He’s beloved in the locker room, so he might be back for the right price.
But Edwards-Helaire also may want to test the free-agent waters, and it would be hard to blame him since it’s his first chance at a significant payday.
Given the running-back market in recent years, a Kansas City reunion seems as likely as anything, but some of that will depend on the Chiefs’ draft.
McKinnon has been a late addition to the roster each of the last few years, but I expect Kansas City to explore their options beyond Pacheco — in the draft and the secondary free-agent market.
Hall signed a reserve/futures contract.
Players under contract (3): Wanya Morris, Lucas Niang, Jawaan Taylor
Free agents (2): Donovan Smith, Prince Tega-Wanogho
Taylor’s contract probably has him locked into the right tackle spot despite leading the NFL in penalties last season, his first with the Chiefs.
Kansas City’s best bet may be to keep working with him on technique and scheme familiarity.
Left tackle will need to be addressed again.
Free agency and the draft will be very telling for those wondering how confident the Chiefs are in Morris, who played OK in Smith’s absence due to a neck injury.
Regardless, Kansas City probably will address the offensive tackle spot in the first three rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft. After all, protecting Patrick is of paramount importance.
Interior offensive line
Players under contract (3): Creed Humphrey, Trey Smith, Joe Thuney
Free agents (2): Nick Allegretti, Mike Caliendo
Kansas City is in a great spot with its interior offensive linemen.
I’d expect the Chiefs to prioritize re-signing Allegretti and Caliendo, if the price is right. But both could be in line for longer deals and more money elsewhere, similar to Andrew Wylie last offseason.
Humphrey and Smith are set to become free agents in 2025, so Kansas City has one year left before the price tag for the center and right guard spots skyrockets — or the Chiefs find a cheap replacement.
GM Brett Veach would be wise to shore up the depth inside in the later rounds of the draft, especially with injury issues beginning to crop up for Thuney.
Players under contract (2): Noah Gray, Travis Kelce
Free agents (2): Blake Bell, Jody Fortson
Travis Kelce is the greatest tight end of all time. He’s also not young anymore.
Gray, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal, has emerged as an above-average second tight end, but there’s a need for depth at the position.
Fortson can’t stay healthy and Bell remains primarily a blocking specialist.
Finding the next Gray in the draft may be more realistic than finding the next Kelce, but it’s another position that could use an infusion of youth.
Players under contract (8): Jacob Copeland, Skyy Moore, Nikko Remigio, Rashee Rice, Justyn Ross, Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Justin Watson
Free agents (2): Mecole Hardman Jr., Richie James Jr.
Rice, last season’s second-round pick, was a home-run pick.
Moore, the team’s 2022 second-round pick, was — I dunno — a single?
Those two receivers, along with Watson and Ross, have the best chance to stick around on the Chiefs’ season-opening roster for 2024.
Valdes-Scantling may be in the mix, too. However, he just finished the second season of a three-year deal and the Chiefs can save $12 million against the cap with only $2 million in dead money by moving on.
If Kansas City wants to pursue a big-name free agent as part of the inevitable reshaping of the wide receiver room, Veach may need that money toward that pursuit.
I’d also expect the Chiefs to throw another draft dart at the position.
Copeland signed a reserve/futures contract.
Players under contract (1): Neil Farrell Jr.
Free agents (3): Chris Jones, Tershawn Wharton, Derrick Nnadi
Wharton and Nnadi seem like good candidates to return on short-term deals. The Chiefs would probably welcome both back at the right price.
But a lot of the offseason will be dictated by Jones’ situation. Do the Chiefs move on? It would mark the end of an era, and finding someone as disruptive on the interior won’t be easy.
If Jones wants top-of-the-market money, it may be tough for Veach to accomplish all of his offseason goals and lock in Jones for another multi-year term.
As crazy as it is to think of Jones in another NFL uniform, that may be the reality awaiting during what could be a franchise-altering offseason in the defensive trenches for Kansas City.
Players under contract (5): Felix Anudike-Uzomah, George Karlaftis, Charles Omenihu, Jordan Smith, BJ Thompson
Free agents (2): Mike Danna, Malik Herring
As uncertain as Kansas City’s future is inside, the edge-rusher group is much more defined.
Karlaftis has established himself as a high-impact player, while Anudike-Uzomah spent most of last season learning behind veterans Omenihu and Danna.
Omenihu has one year remaining on the free-agent deal he signed before the 2023 season, but his availability and effectiveness will be impacted by the ACL surgery recovery.
That means Anudike-Uzomah must take a step forward along with Thompson, a fellow 2023 draft pick.
Danna and Herring have been underrated pieces on the defense and roster overall, so both could return for the right price.
Smith signed a reserve/futures contract.
Players under contract (3): Nick Bolton, Leo Chenal, Cam Jones
Free agents (3): Jack Cochrane, Willie Gay Jr., Drue Tranquill
You have to figure Kansas City will make it a priority to keep either Tranquill or Gay.
It would be great to keep both, but Bolton is the quarterback of the defense and has one year left on his rookie deal.
It’s unlikely the Chiefs can sign Tranquill, Gay and then give Bolton a new long-term deal.
It feels like Tranquill and a young, athletic linebacker in the middle rounds makes the most sense — but, man, it would be a bummer to break up one of the most underrated linebacker rooms in the NFL.
The NFL salary cap probably dictates that it must happen, though.
The emergence of Chenal, who defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has figured out how to maximize, helps a bit.
Players under contract (5): Ekow Boye-Dow, Nic Jones, Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson, Joshua Williams
Free agents (2): Nazeeh Johnson, L’Jarius Sneed
Re-signing Sneed may be second only to reshaping the wide receiver room on the Chiefs’ offseason checklist.
He’s the ideal Spags cover corner. Veach’s decision may come down to Sneed or Jones, but I just can’t see Sneed not being a Chief next season.
Front-load the contract during the first two years to provide flexibility on the back end to also keep McDuffie around, and Kansas City’s secondary could be special for years to come.
With Williams and Watson still on rookie deals along with Boye-Dow and Jones only beginning their NFL journeys, this is one of the deepest, most-talented and most-impactful positions on the roster — assuming Sneed comes back.
Players under contract (3): Chamarri Conner, Bryan Cook, Justin Reid
Free agents (2): Deon Bush, Mike Edwards
Cook missed the last two months of the season, including the playoffs, with an ankle injury. I suspect we'll hear about a surgery at some point during the offseason, but the Chiefs should be in good shape when training camp rolls around with a healthy Cook along with Reid and Conner.
Reid has one year left on his deal, but he’s been worth the investment since being tapped to replace Tyrann Mathieu.
Bush and Edwards should be welcomed back at the right price as well, which could provide incredible stability on the back end for Kansas City’s defense.
Players under contract (1): Harrison Butker
Free agents (2): Tommy Townsend, James Winchester
Butker has one year left on his contract, but Townsend and Winchester are set to enter free agency.
It would be a mild shock if all three aren’t back. Why break up a good thing?